Dr. Lyndon Burford is a visiting research associate at King’s College London, a member of the New Technologies for Peace Working Group in the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission and a co-founder of the PATH Collective. He’s interested in Web3 as a transformative tool that allows the imagination of more equitable, peaceful social structures based on transparency, accountability, and shared power. This is part of a series of interviews in which you can get to know the grants given under the 2022 Equity Rises Request for Proposals and the people behind all the work.
Question 1: Tell us about your work! What kind of goals do you have? What are you excited about?
I’m a co-founder of PATH Collective LLC, along with Danielle McLaughlin and Rob Baker. PATH is a mission-driven company whose goal is to make peace profitable. Thanks to a Ploughshares Fund Equity Rises grant, we’re excited to be working on educational workshops to bridge the worlds of humanitarian nuclear disarmament and Web3.
Over many years in academia, I came to think of myself as a nuclear disarmament theorist. In other words, I spent most of my time trying to imagine what a world without nuclear weapons would look like, and how humanity could move collectively in that direction. I studied the politics, identities and related norms, technologies, and economics that sustain nuclear weapons, and imagining how we could reconfigure them to make it both possible and profitable to move towards the phased, verified elimination of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, I found very few people who were interested in exploring the same questions as me.
Eventually, my exploration led me to PATH Collective, who met through the N Square Innovators Network (another collaboration co-funded by Ploughshares Fund), and to our mission to make peace profitable – which is a lot more action-oriented than my academic work!
A founding assumption for us is that for the small group of rich, powerful people who determine nuclear policy, maintaining nuclear weapons is very profitable in financial and political terms, and that to shift the policy dial towards disarmament, we need to invert that situation. We need to create economic structures in which people can build a career, feed their families, put their children through school, and save for their retirement, all while actively working to increase the peace. We think Web3 technologies, if developed in an inclusive, ethically-driven way, can help to do that, as well as helping empower historically marginalized communities impacted by nuclear harms.
Question 2: How can blockchain technology be used to advance nuclear disarmament?
Blockchain is the software driving the development of the next generation of the internet, known as “Web3.” This is the idea of an internet characterized by data and value exchanges that are more decentralized – that is, less dependent on centralized, hierarchical structures than Web2 platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or Google.
Examples of Web3 technologies are cryptocurrencies, NFTs (verifiably unique digital objects), and decentralized organizations, which give community members a greater say in setting rules and making decisions that affect them by using collectively managed algorithms to govern their digital interactions and financial transactions.
All technologies are inherently political in their origins and impacts, so it’s essential to take an inclusive, intersectional approach to developing new technologies. Otherwise, we risk replicating the injustices of yesterday and today in the systems of the future.
PATH Collective envisions several ways Web3 technologies might help, including global crowd-sourcing and crowd-management of finances for research and action on humanitarian disarmament; using digital art (in the form of NFTs) to enable communities impacted by nuclear harms to tell their stories in their own ways, retaining the related IP while creating new revenue streams; and in the longer term, helping to finance and facilitate "societal verification" – that is, citizens helping to monitor and verify their governments’ compliance with disarmament agreements. This would offer citizens a sense of agency in helping provide greater security for themselves and the planet.
Question 3: How do you think including more diverse voices will affect your work and the nuclear policy field?
In any field, it’s essential to include diverse voices in decision making processes because we are all blind to many of our own mental biases. That means we literally cannot see certain issues, failings, and injustices that impact others around us, because our mental models of the world filter them out.
In the nuclear policy field, there are many blind spots, because the field was created and continues to be dominated by a very small, generally homogenous elite, so this issue is as urgent in our field as ever. Including more diverse voices in the field will help PATH Collective learn more about how we can ally with and support the work of those most impacted by nuclear harms and help make the issue of nuclear weapons policy more real and proximate to a broader public audience – which is essential if we are going to have policy impact.
Question 4: What's the most interesting or memorable project you've gotten involved with in your career?
PATH Collective! My co-founders Danielle and Rob are passionate, talented, creative people who are committed to approaching this decades-old problem in fundamentally new and innovative ways, including by bringing art to the forefront of our discussions to help further humanize our policy debates. I’m super excited about it, and it’s helping me to rethink and disrupt the very restrictive ways that the traditional analyst’s lens has trained me into approaching nuclear policy issues, which result in a policy discourse dominated by arcane, technical debates about weapons systems, not humans.
I also want to highlight that the thing that enabled the creation of PATH Collective is the N Square Innovators Network, for which I am currently the Network Weaver in Residence. N Square is doing some of the most innovative work I’ve encountered in 18 years of working on nuclear disarmament. The Network includes a ton of folks from a very diverse range of personal and professional backgrounds, all bringing their unique worldview and skillset, and a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, to the challenge of addressing nuclear harms and threats.
Question 5: Who or what motivates you?
I’m passionate about peace. I believe that peace is an internal and external journey of discovery, and with it, transformation. I see our internal world as being reflected externally, and right now, we see a world that reflects a violent human psychology, which is actively sustained by societal systems that are traumatizing people and planet. Examples include the permanent nuclear war economy; the US-Saudi deal that helps sustain the US dollar as the global reserve currency, based on the US selling high-tech weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis agreeing only to denominate their oil sales in USD, thus exacerbating both the climate crisis and militarism; and the extractive capitalist system premised on permanent growth and debt-based monetary systems. I believe that unless we reform these systems – both the violent internal psychology and the external systems that it perpetuates – humanity’s future is pretty bleak. For those reasons, alongside my disarmament work, I have kept a daily meditation practise since 1998.
Question 6: What do you think the nuclear field needs right now?
More leadership of the kind offered by Ploughshares! We need to recognize the perverse impacts and incentives created by the existing funding systems for nuclear policy work, which lead to organizations competing for a limited pool of funding, and a highly restrictive definition of what counts as legitimate knowledge. We need to break down those systems by working collaboratively to build a movement that can increase the overall funding pool available and maximize the impact of the available funds.
I also think we need to further humanize the conversation by continuing the movement to re-center humans, not nuclear weapons, in our work for peace. We spend a lot of time stating our opposition to the nuclear weapons symbology, institutions, and policies that already exists, which is understandable given their perverse nature. But I think we could also do a better job of balancing that with the forward-looking work of imagining “what next,” so that we have a positive vision, a “North Star” (for those in the Northern Hemisphere; where I’m from in Aotearoa New Zealand, we have a constellation of six stars, the Southern Cross, that tells us where magnetic South is!) to shine a light on where we might go from here, and to attract people to it.
Question 7: What is the best book you’ve read recently?
“Singing for our Supper: Walking an English Songline from Kent to Cornwall,” by Will Parsons. It’s the story of two young British men literally singing to feed themselves as they wander the old pilgrimage routes in England. Those routes are currently being “rediscovered”, after they were banned and largely forgotten following the destruction of the old religious orders in the 1530s, on the orders of Henry VIII. The book is a whimsical, poetic “on-the-road” story of wandering adventure, and a great respite from focusing on nuclear weapons in my work life!